L.A. ‘Pothole Queen’ Livens Mayor Race With War on Ruts

In Los Angeles, where deteriorated roadways add an average of $746 a year to the cost of maintaining a car, potholes have become a symbol of municipal neglect and an issue in this year’s race for mayor.

Both candidates in the May 21 runoff election have touted their pothole-fighting credentials in a race defined less by grand ambitions for the second-largest U.S. city than by a focus on core services such as policing and street repairs.

City Controller Wendy Greuel dubbed herself the “Pothole Queen” when, as a councilwoman from the San Fernando Valley, she personally brandished a shovel and helped fill 747 holes in the pavement one weekend. Her rival for mayor, Councilman Eric Garcetti, boasts that his office developed a first-of-its-kind smartphone application for residents to easily report potholes and other nuisances.

“This is the No. 1 issue that people complain about in my council district and every council district in the city, on a consistent basis,” Councilman Mitchell Englander, who is neutral in the mayor’s race, said in a telephone interview. “It affects rich people and poor people. It affects every neighborhood in the city.”

Los Angeles maintains 6,500 miles (10,500 kilometers) of streets and highways, more than New York with 6,000 miles and Chicago with 4,000 miles, according to transportation departments in the three largest cities.

Degraded roads inflict more damage on cars in metropolitan Los Angeles every year than in any other metro area: $746 on average, compared with $638 in New York and $333 in Chicago, according to a 2009 report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Issue Resonates

That’s an issue that resonates with voters, especially since the mayoral race is largely devoid of grand philosophical debates, said Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who can’t run again because of term limits and hasn’t endorsed a successor, took on ambitious initiatives such as City Hall control of public schools and extending the regional subway to the Pacific Ocean, Sonenshein said.

“It may not be time for a grand vision,” Sonenshein said in an interview. “It may be a time for making sure the details get taken care of.”

“This campaign is not of poetry, but prose,” he said.

‘Severe Disrepair’

In a televised debate before the March 5 primary election narrowed the field to Greuel and Garcetti, Sonenshein asked the candidates how they’d deal with the “severe disrepair” of many streets.

Greuel promised to seek federal funding for repairs.

“Fixing our streets is critically important for our city, not only for tourism, but also for business,” she said.

Garcetti said he’d sell bonds backed by a half-cent increase in Los Angeles County’s sales-tax rate, approved by voters in 2008 for transit projects over 30 years.

“I would take a bond out against those 26 years and spend it in three years as mayor, paving hundreds of miles of streets now,” he said.

Potholes in colder climates typically form after rain or melted snow seeps under the pavement and expands because of freezing, eventually creating a cavity that leaves the roadway unsupported, according to the highway association.

Los Angeles doesn’t get snow, rarely experiences freezing temperatures and has less than half of the annual precipitation of New York or Chicago. Southern California potholes form when rain seeping through cracks softens soil beneath the pavement, which then collapses under the weight of traffic, according to a bulletin from the city’s Street Services Bureau.

Damage Claims

The damaged pavement bends tire rims, wrecks axles and wears out vehicle suspensions. Patti Metroulas said her 2007 Honda Civic incurred about $1,400 in damage when she hit a large pothole near a Studio City strip mall in 2011. Road conditions in the city’s San Fernando Valley, where Metroulas lives, haven’t improved since then and she said the mayoral candidates don’t seem to be offering solutions.

“We drive on the roads here in L.A. at our own risk and fix the damages out of our own pockets,” Metroulas said by e-mail. “I have no hope that the next mayor will consider this matter of any consequence. Maybe when somebody dies in an accident caused by a pothole, the results will be different.”

Metroulas said she filed a reimbursement claim with the city and was turned down. In the year ended June 30, the city attorney’s office received 648 such claims and paid 101 of them a total of $42,153, according to Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the office. The previous year, there were 2,014 claims, with 119 paid $54,433, he said.

Core Services

Greuel and Garcetti, both Democrats, have promised to focus on core city services such as public safety, road maintenance and parks, if elected.

Greuel, 51, represented part of the San Fernando Valley as a city councilwoman from 2002 to 2009, before her election as controller. While on the council, her office spurred the city to fill 164,345 potholes, said Dan Loeterman, a campaign spokesman.

“In many cases, she put on a vest and gloves herself and joined crews as they filled the potholes,” Loeterman said by e-mail. “Shortly after she was elected, Wendy grabbed a shovel and with the help of 100 volunteers, filled 747 potholes in a single weekend, earning broad praise from her constituents.”

Garcetti, 42, who has represented a Hollywood-area council district since 2001, pioneered the use of mobile applications to report potholes, graffiti and other nuisances in 2010, campaign spokesman Yusef Robb said. Instead of phoning in a problem, a resident can snap a photo and upload it along with the location from the smartphone’s GPS.

“If Eric can do this on his own with a staff that’s 1/10th of 1 percent of the entire city staff, there’s no reason the city couldn’t do this,” Robb said by telephone. “We’re a big city and we should be doing big things, but we can’t lose sight of our basic responsibilities: keeping the streets safe and keeping the streets clean. When you do little things, it leads to big things.”

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